With plans to build a new beach on Sea Island facing environmental and political scrutiny at the state level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to review the necessary federal permitting for the project.

The first phase of the Corps’ consideration process wraps up Friday, the last day to submit public comments on Sea Island Acquisition’s proposal to install a 350-foot rock groin at the south end of the island to build 1,200 feet of new beach. The request will go through an internal review, with the final decision resting with Col. Marvin Griffin, commander of the Corps’ Savannah District, said Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell.

His decision is based in large part on information from the public comment phase, which also includes submissions from other government agencies and scientific and environmental institutions, Birdwell said. There is no set due date for the commander’s decision, he said.

“Ultimately, the decision falls down to our commander,” Birdwell said. “A lot depends on how many comments we have gotten. And it is not untypical for us to go back to the requester and ask for additional information or studies.”

Meanwhile, the state Shore Protection Committee’s approval last month of the Sea Island beach project is in limbo, pending a judge’s findings on the appeals filed Monday by several environmental groups, said attorney Steve Caley of GreenLaw. It could take up to 90 days for an administrative law judge to rule on the appeals. The appeals were filed with the state Department of Natural Resources, under which the Shore Protection Committee operates.

GreenLaw filed an appeal on behalf of the Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation; the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a separate appeal for One Hundred Miles.

Karl Burgess, the DNR’s program manager for marsh and shore management, confirmed that the appeals were filed but could not comment further. Burgess said a representative from the DNR’s legal department would call The News, but no such call came Tuesday.

The appeal will be turned over to the state Office of Administrative Hearings where a judge will make a decision, Caley said.

“By filing an appeal, all action is delayed,” Caley said. “They cannot do any work on the groin until the appeal is resolved, or on any other part of the project for the matter.”

Scott Steilen, president of Sea Island Acquisition, said Monday that his company plans to contest the appeal. He is confident the appeal’s outcome will favor Sea Island’s plans.

“We are confident that the Corps will carefully review all the information, and we expect that the Corps will make a decision to approve Sea Island’s application to protect its property by implementing the beach nourishment and groin project,” Steilen said.

The environmental groups’ appeals are part of a rising wave of concern over the proposed beach buildup. State Reps. Jeff Jones and Alex Atwood, both residents of St. Simons Island, have recently called for the Shore Protection Committee to hold a new hearing on the beach construction project. The calls from Jones and Atwood, both Republicans, were sparked by mounting opposition from St. Simons residents. They fear the Sea Island beach project will cause damaging erosion and harm wildlife habitat.

Jones said he was particularly concerned because of the committee’s narrow 2-1 vote to approve, with one member absent.

Committee member Stan Humphries, the one who was absent, was attending a long-planned Caribbean vacation with his wife.

The vote in December came amid vocal objections from island residents and environmental officials, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Committee members Richard Gardner and Bert Guy voted in favor, and Henry Morgan cast the dissenting vote. Committee chairman Mark Williams, also the DNR commissioner, votes only to break ties.

Jones said a call to hold another hearing on the matter would have to come from either Gardner or Guy, but he believes it will happen.

“I think the DNR will have no problem with a reconsideration request,” Jones said Tuesday. “The key is that a member of the SPC who voted yes must officially request the reconsideration. All that I hope to accomplish is for the full committee to have an opportunity to hear the testimony and then vote.

“A key committee member, a St. Simons resident, had plans set for months ago that couldn’t be changed. So he could not attend. The potential impact of the groin’s construction is what’s at issue here. Let there be a vote by the full committee. That’s my desire.”

Humphries said Tuesday that perhaps last month’s decision should have at least been deferred, as Morgan had suggested before the vote.

“Just from what I read since I have been back, I really don’t understand why it was not deferred,” Humphries said. “Henry Morgan told me that he thought it really ought to be.”

Steilen said the project will not adversely affect St. Simons Island’s beaches to the south, as opponents contend. He said coastal engineering and geological consultants for the company assert that there is enough sand in the inlet between Sea Island and St. Simons to prevent the project from depriving St. Simons of naturally flowing sand.

Sea Island officials further contend that the project will enhance wildlife habitat, rather than harm it. The last rock groin the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved on the Georgia coast is the one presently on Sea Island, built in the early 1990s.

The proposed new rock groin would be built 1,200 feet south of the existing groin and the space between would be filled with sand hauled from another locations on Sea Island. The proposed groin also would include a 120-foot rock T-groin at its end, running parallel to the beach.

The beach project would protect a proposed development of oceanfront homes on Sea Island.

The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments at: 100 W. Oglethorpe Ave., Savannah, GA, 31401; attention SAS-2015-00742. Comments also can be emailed with that reference number to: cesas-rd@usace.army.mil.

Reporter Larry Hobbs

writes about government, public safety and other local topics. Contact him at lhobbs@thebrunswicknews.com or at 265-8320, ext. 320.

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